Black Lightning star Jordan Calloway on Khalil's struggle in the Painkiller pilot
It's finally time to find out what Jordan Calloway's Khalil, a.k.a. Painkiller, has been up to since departing Freeland at the end of Black Lightning's third season.
Tonight, the CW superhero drama journeys to the Akashic Valley, a futuristic anime-inspired city and Khalil's new home, for an episode that serves as backdoor pilot for a potential Painkiller spin-off. In the months since he's been gone, Khalil has been living in self-isolation and searching for a way to permanently get rid of his bloodthirsty Painkiller programming, which is still unfortunately hellbent on killing the Pierce family. It's taking all of his strength to keep the murderous personality at bay.
Luckily, though, he's not working alone and has found some allies in the Akashic Valley: There's Philky (Insecure's Alexander Hodge), Jordan's tech expert who moonlights as a bartender, and soulful army veteran and medic Cousin Donald (The Night Shift's James Roch). Like Khalil, both men are also haunted by things from their past. Of course, every superhero show needs its villain and that's where the enigmatic Maya (Lost in Space's Sibongile Mlambo), who is up to something nefarious in the Akashic Valley, comes in.
Below, EW chats with Calloway about Khalil's ongoing war with Painkiller, his new friends, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did [Black Lightning showrunner] Salim Akil pitch the spin-off to you?
JORDAN CALLOWAY: He didn't really pitch it. He said, "Hey man, you going to work." Okay. Maybe it wasn't something like that. Maybe there was a little bit more finesse to it. He called me during 2020 during the whole lockdown. I was building a deck and he simply told me, "Hey man, so I pitched the idea to a Warner Bros. and they got behind it. And so yeah, we're going to go ahead and do a backdoor pilot for a possible spin-off." I was a little speechless. It's one of those things that just hits you out of nowhere. I honestly have to say this now that I'm thinking about it: I'm so grateful it came the way it did, because for me it makes me feel as if it was my work preceding me that provided this opportunity, along with God obviously. But it's my work that preceded me and that's what I'm all about.
Based on this backdoor pilot, how will a Painkiller show differ from Black Lightning in terms of subject matter and tone?
With Black Lightning, we have more of a familial aspect that we're dealing with. In [the "Painkiller" pilot], you have that as well. But what I like [is] "Painkiller" dives into the psyche of a damaged Black man. You get to see, it's kind of the setup of if you were on an island with the person that you hated the most, how would you survive? That's what I love about Painkiller, where you have Khalil dealing with his other half of himself, the yin and the yang aspect of it. You get to see this journey where both of them are going to have to come to an understanding of one another. They don't get to just get rid of the other. It's not an enemy that you can fight and get rid of. This is a continual journey, continual uphill battle that we're going to see between the two, especially when there's damage that's caused by the murder of your own mother.
I would also say that, it's dealing with different characters [who are also] technically damaged goods. You have that with Philky and you have that with Cousin Donald and those two are my family, but that's a brotherhood. So, that's what we're also seeing as well is a brotherhood in "Painkiller" as well. So you're dealing with different characters that are all coming from some sort of troubled past that all have to deal with their own [baggage] and get over it and not just get over it, but have one another's back in order to get through this process.
How would you describe the look and feel of Khalil's new home in Akashic Valley?
I sat with Salim, he told me his idea, "It's like, Blade Runner meets sort of Altered Carbon or Ghost in the Shell." and you get those vibes. And of course I love anime, so that clicked for me.
What is Khalil's life like in Akashic Valley? Is he doing the vigilante thing or trying to keep a low profile?
No, I think in the show Khalil, he's more so secluded, he's more kept to himself and isolated. A lot of that comes from his fear of what would happen if Painkiller gets out. So he's done a lot of self-isolation, which is very detrimental because you find yourself in a depressive state and the reason why it's really cool seeing how Anissa [is] the one to encourage [him] and how she's the one to sort of be the one that helps draw him out. It's a little rough in the beginning. She does that tough love, that's what Khalil needed, but it actually ends up saving his life. I personally looked at it that way. It saves his life from a world of depression or world of isolation and to be caught or caught up and left in your own thoughts. I mean, that's very dangerous. As I said before, with the brotherhood that created with Philky and with Cousin Donald, nobody has the answers, but they're all helping one another. As iron sharpens iron, so does brother sharpen his fellow brother. So for that aspect of it, I think it's been really, really cool seeing that.
What threat is Khalil facing in Akashic Valley?
I think one of the biggest things with what Maya does, is the fact that because she's targeting individuals and their brains. What Khalil sees is people being taken advantage of, and that hits a chord for Khalil because that's essentially the same thing that's happened for him. I consider the time when anybody that's been robbed or anything, you feel a sense of vulnerability, you feel violated? That's what Khalil has seen even more. It's not just dangerous, but it's a violation of these individuals. That's why it strikes so close to home. The epitome of that violation, of being controlled ended in the death and murder of his own mother by his own hands. And that's nothing you would ever want to wish on any of your enemies, so that big bad being Maya in her control all over Akashic Valley, how deep her roots go, that's only going to just fan the flame for Khalil to wanna actually do something about it. He can't let that slide.
And Painkiller, I mean, he just looking for a reason to fight. We love him for it. We love him it. He's a great anti-hero. I mean, one that you hate because of his past, but he's also misunderstood. And that's what I'm hoping we'll also get into if we get picked up for the series, because I think that is something that is often overlooked for individuals that we are so quick to label as wrong, the enemy [or] whatever it may be. But there's a lack of understanding on our parts as well. That's what Khalil will be learning.
Khalil and Painkiller are two very different characters, and you often play both of them in the same scene. Do you do anything specific to get into character as Painkiller?
It definitely depends on the tone of the scene for one, but I have my own playlist for Painkiller and for Khalil which I been doing since season one. What's the different type of moods? What's the different type of music that they would listen to given the mood? Sometimes you'll see, the crew mates see me isolated if it's a more emotional scene or if it's more, not just sad, but even like angry or violent. You got to take that time and I'll just separate, isolate myself, find it and put myself in there because at the end of the day, you, I owe it to both characters, to do them justice and I want the audience to be engaged. I want them to see different nuances, different traits, different things that might end up triggering. Triggering words for Khalil might be mom whereas Painkiller, it may be ASA or Tobias or Odel. Jen is definitely one for Khalil but they have, they emote different reactions.
Can we expect to see Khalil pop back up in Freeland before Black Lightning ends?
Come on now, man. You really think Khalil or Painkiller would allow this to be the last season and he not show up? Come on now, you got to stay tuned!
Black Lightning airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.